The Los Angeles Times has been running a series of stories detailing how many California welfare recipients have been using their state-issued welfare debit cards (which take money directly out of state coffers) at casino ATM’s. The millions of dollars in taxpayer money dispensed to eager, if poor, gamblers produced predictable outrage, and the state responded by blocking use of the cards at over 200 ATM’s and revising the pledge signed by welfare recipients to require them to only use the assistance to “meet the basic subsistence needs” of their families.
The outrage is misplaced, and the remedial measures are symbolic at best. What stops a recipient from taking cash out of another ATM, and then spending it at a casino? Or a strip club? Or a bar? The illusion that the a state can give cash to people who, in many cases, are in the financial straits they are because of poor, self-destructive or short-sighted choices and priorities and expect those individuals not to continue their pattern of behavior in spending the money is beyond naive.
The state is worse than naive, however. It is hypocritical. California has a state lottery that it advertises heavily, knowing well, for it is well-documented, that the heaviest users are those close to the poverty line. It encourages and profits from legalized gambling that victimizes the most vulnerable, then reacts with horror that welfare recipients, conditioned by the state to regard gambling with their scarce resources as acceptable conduct, use their welfare money in state licensed casinos.
Next, California compounds its contradictory messages by telling its welfare recipients how to spend their money. What is a “basic subsistence need”? Would using the welfare money to attend a concert—to feed the soul–be a violation of the pledge? Would buying a new suit be a violation? If it was for a job interview? If it was just to make the welfare recipient feel better about himself? How about buying a gift for his child? Is that “subsistence”? What if the child is sick? Buying a drink, if one is an alcoholic, is a basic need. Is the California saying that drunks can buy liquor with welfare money, but others can’t?
Suppose the welfare recipient is, in fact, a retired professional poker player, who generally wins. The casino withdrawal is a stake for him, and one that he is likely to parlay into a profit. What is wrong with him doing that? If he wins big, he may be able to get off the welfare rolls.
If California wants to limit its assistance to food, it should go back to issuing food stamps. Attempting to dictate the values, needs and life decisions of welfare recipients, however, is an abuse of power, as well as being disrespectful and arrogant. Give them the money, and let them decide how best to spend it, or don’t give them the money.
California, after all, is broke too. What qualifies Arnold Schwarzenegger to dictate how citizens should use their money?